Bye-bye, Beetle: curtain falls on ‘a car for the people’ but the memories will tick over for ever


Bye-bye, Beetle: curtain falls on ‘a car for the people’ but the memories will tick over for ever

In focus: Volkswagen Beetle

VW Beetle
VW Beetle
VW Beetle’s assembly on Shelbourne Road, Dublin
VW Beetle production line Dublin
News of the Beetle’s arrival

The curtains may have come down on the Volkswagen Beetle but they can never close the door on the memories millions have of their time in one.

I wasn’t around for the launch of the original in the middle of the last century but I was for the unveiling of the new Beetle in 1998 when we embraced a new era and looked back on an extraordinary one.

Indeed I could say I grew up after driving an old Beetle thanks to my introduction to it in dubious circumstances.

I was young and in the company of two great men, the car’s owner, PJ, and my ‘uncle’ Pa (RIP both).

VW Beetle's assembly on Shelbourne Road, DublinVW Beetle's assembly on Shelbourne Road, Dublin

VW Beetle’s assembly on Shelbourne Road, Dublin

I should have sensed devilment was afoot when I caught them exchanging mischievous grins prior to setting off from Clara, Co Offaly, to visit family in Monasterevin, Co Kildare.

After a few minutes on the road they announced with great gravity that we’d have to stop for refreshments at some point – it being such a ‘long’ journey (a mere 35 miles).

Being law-abiding citizens, neither would entertain drinking and driving, so I was promoted to captain for the remainder of the journeys.

I think we stopped at every public house in Geashill, Clonygowan and Portarlington (Co Offaly) before crossing the borders into Laois and Kildare to sample more.

The thing is, you see, I’d never driven a Beetle previously, nor too many cars of any sort for that matter.

And the Beetle was so different. The engine was in the rear, making the steering particularly light and, for me, totally vague.

VW Beetle production line DublinVW Beetle production line Dublin

VW Beetle production line Dublin

I never drank alcohol but anyone tracing my meanderings that evening could have been forgiven for thinking I was under the influence. I just couldn’t get the hang of the steering and wandered all over the road.

Thankfully the journey back was late into the night and my two passengers, replete with drink and the excellent food always served up by our generous hosts, only wanted to get home to their beds.

But by then I’d got the hang of the Beetle.

‘Pa’ noticed and proclaimed from the back seat: “You weren’t great on the way up but you’re grand now.”

I was as proud as if I’d won the Sweepstakes. I think I sort of grew up (a bit?) that evening, which is why I have such fond memories of the car.

That Beetle, and many subsequent ones, more than paid their way for my good friend and for thousands like him all over the country. It was, indeed, a car for the people.

My memories of the ‘new’ model are of a more upmarket car, a different sense of what it was all about. Yet for all the technical and time differences between old and new, there remains something intrinsically loveable about the Beetle shape, don’t you think?

Such sentiment, I suspect, was far from Volkswagen’s mind when the first Beetle rolled off the production line in 1945. Around 21 million more were to follow.

Ireland has always had a special relationship with the car. We were the first country outside Germany to assemble Beetles (from 1950, when it cost £465, to 1977).

A deal was struck in 1949, when Motor Distributors Ltd, founded by the legendary Stephen O’Flaherty, secured the franchise. The Irish Independent on Tuesday, October 31, 1950, reported that: “The agreement with the Irish company for assembling outside Germany is the first of its kind the German firm has made in its foreign sales.”

From an output of 46 cars in 1950 to 2,155 in 1952, the assembly business outgrew the Shelbourne Rd premises Mr O’Flaherty had bought. In 1955 it was transferred to a new factory on the Naas Rd. Beetle sales averaged 3,000 to 4,000 annually for most of the 30 years it was on the market (highest volume: 5,288 in 1972).

And then in 1998 the new Beetle was finally launched. It had a flower vase on the dash – nice touch – but cramped rear space.

Yet such was the demand for it that, in its early days, the Irish distributor imported a number of left-hand drives. It sold here from 1999 to 2011.

But, as is always the case in the motor industry, there is a final piece of Beetle business to be done. VW still has a few ‘new’ models for sale here, from €25,350. Bye-bye, Beetle.

Irish Independent

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